Eye of the Storm

Yifu Dong reviews a book of memoirs on the Cultural Revolution Memory of the Storm

When I was attending Beijing No. 4 High School, one of the best-known high schools in China, I had heard of the role of my school in the Cultural Revolution. However, it is extremely difficult for any student today to imagine that the same grounds, where the hexagon-shaped classrooms, gardens and sports field now lie, half a century ago, served as the epicenter of a political storm that forever altered the fate of China. The high school became the eye of the storm largely because the school was elitist in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the Cultural Revolution, when many princelings, or sons of higher level officials in the Party, government and military, attended the school. The list of princelings include famous names such as Lin Liguo, the son of Lin Biao, Liu Yuan, the son of Liu Shaoqi, and Bo Xilai, the son of Bo Yibo.

In 2011, eighteen alumni of Beijing No. 4 High School, also witnesses of the Cultural Revolution, contributed a chapter to a collection of memoirs called Memory of the Storm (Baofengyu de Jiyi) in Hong Kong. The three co-editors are Bei Dao, Cao Yifan and Wei Yi. Bei Dao, the most famous of the three, is a widely-acclaimed poet who attended Beijing No. 4 High School and later continued his career in Hong Kong. Other contributors include famous artists and intellectuals such as Mu Zhijing, Liu Xuanhui, Qin Xiao and Chen Kaige.

Despite the powerful lineup, it is easy to overlook the importance of this book because the stories are largely confined to the experiences of teenagers in an elite Beijing high school. Clearly, the book does not serve to present the whole picture of the Cultural Revolution, but the essence of the book is a precious collection of firsthand accounts. The contributors offer a mosaic of memories, encompassing school life, class differences, violence, travel and even sex. The value of the book lies in the glimpses the memoirs offer into history as well as their openness to interpretation. In the book, the distinct purposes and biases of different contributors are visible: some try to protect their own images, some confess, and others try to remain modest and downplay their roles and achievements. In fact, their contradictions and biases carry a large part of the value of the collection. The truth does not lie in a single account; it is rather either constructed through various lenses or hidden between the lines.

One good example of constructing truth from various angles is the legendary story of Zhao Jingxing. Zhao, unlike most others who are either princelings or sons of intellectuals, came from a working class family. Surprisingly, however, he was even better-read than most of his peers in school, which fostered an exceptional trend of learning, expression and free flow of ideas. Not only did Zhao know by heart the orthodox texts of communism, he also read most of the influential western philosophers. Furthermore, he wrote his own philosophical work, openly critiqued and claimed to have developed Maoist theories and published an article arguing against Mao's decision to send young people to the countryside. Like many others, Zhao paid a price for his independent thinking and rationality in an era of insanity, but his plight was the most severe among his peers. He received three years in prison as a high school student and some even speculate that he nearly received the death penalty for his outspokenness and candidness about his beliefs. His life story does not come from a single source. In fact, Zhao's own account focused only on his readings and thoughts; he downplayed his own importance and showed no self-pity and only a sense of composure and confidence. It is through the vivid descriptions of others, including Zhao's friends as well as his assigned accusers, that we are able to know this exceptional character.

Zhao embodied a trait common within the walls of Beijing No. 4 High School--rationality. Most students clung to it even though irrationality became the means of survival during this time. Some even brewed their rational thinking into independent newspapers that enjoyed nationwide prestige. Unfortunately, much of this rationality faded in the storm. Today, such achievements are completely unthinkable for Chinese journalists, let alone high school students. Since the Cultural Revolution was so violent a storm that forced everyone to make a choice, and each person made a different one: some exercised careful avoidance, some resorted to violence, and some challenged evil head-on. In Memory of the Storm, we are able to catch a glimpse of countless individuals' momentous decisions that would forever change the course of their lives.

Although many of these characters came from privileged background, they represented the best hope of a generation. While the era seems a world away, however, the students of Beijing No. 4 High School were committed to "carrying the world on their shoulders," as Qin Xiao points out in his memoir. Given the students' prestigious background, the school's reputation, and the backdrop of 1960s Chinese society, the students were indeed in an advantageous position to make positive impact in society. Half a century after the storm, however, even the most promising high school students are not in that enviable position to change the world. Despite their exceptional talent and effort to overcome social limitations, their potentials suffer from a severe lack of freedom and initiative as they are constantly under patronizing guidance and excessive protection that trap them in their comfort zones. Looking back at the generation of the contributors to the Memory of the Storm, I can only envy the spiritual and intellectual high ground the students of my high school enjoyed fifty years ago.

Now that such atmosphere filled with freedom has largely disappeared, the contributors write with a profound sense of nostalgia. Even though the Cultural Revolution was one of the darkest chapters in Chinese history, the contributors and the readers alike can appreciate the rationality, opportunity and glow of hope in that bygone era. After all, the book is meant to be more than just a collection of fragments of memories; it commemorates the glow of hope at the eye of the storm, as well as the promises of a generation swallowed up by the Cultural Revolution.

Yifu Dong is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at yifu.dong@yale.edu.

This article also appears in China Hands.